I had to be here, Coach

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

Staff Sgt. Robert Taylor learned the news on Facebook on Tuesday, Oct. 27. His former teammate, Brian O’Malley, posted a link to the story of the sudden impending retirement after 14 years at Allegheny College of Head Football Coach Mark Matlak.

A 2005 graduate in economics, Rob had played football for Coach Matlak for three years, including on the 2003 championship team. The soldier, veteran, husband and father of two made up his mind. He wanted to make it to coach’s last home game on Saturday, Oct. 31.

When Rob was a sophomore, his father and mother flew up to see his first two home games in September 2002. It was Coach Matlak’s first season at Allegheny. Rob knew his father was ill. His dad was waiting outside the locker room to see him after the game. Rob turned back before his father saw him, walked into the locker room and broke into tears. Coach was there.

Rob’s father died in Florida a month later on Oct. 12, 2002. Coach was there again to comfort Rob in his deep grief and in the days and years that followed. He filled a void, Rob said.

I met then Sgt. Robert Taylor in Afghanistan in December 2011, when he served with the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment, stationed at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. On patrol, Rob was the infantryman at the front with a Vallon, a hand-held metal detector used to sweep for mines and improvised explosive devices. It was his job to clear the path, his responsibility to bring the men and women in his unit back safely. When he wasn’t out front with the Vallon, he was often the soldier assigned to walk in front of me, the journalist joining the patrol, in my two months in Afghanistan.

On Halloween morning, Rob left Fort Carson, Colorado, before dawn at 4:30 a.m. At noon my time, I received a text. My connection in Houston was canceled. My new flight has me landing at kickoff. I should make it by the third quarter at best.

I immediately got on the phone with a Holly, an agent in Nashville, with United Premier Service—a perk of frequent flying. I asked about the flights from Houston, which had been delayed by big storms. What about Cleveland? She asked for Rob’s confirmation number. I didn’t have it. There was a flight 6066 to Cleveland, but it was delayed, too.

Rob texted again. The Pittsburgh flight had been delayed once more. He’d be lucky to make it before the end of the game. I called Rob, explained the possibility of the Cleveland flight, which might arrive at 6 p.m.

Watching the game would be nice, but as long as I can be there to shake his hand on the field, all will be worth it, Rob texted.

Later he sent another message. The Pittsburgh flight was delayed until 3 p.m.

It’s all falling apart, he wrote. The customer service line for United is 100 people deep. There is no way I could change to Cleveland now.

I got his confirmation number and dialed Premier Service again. Kelly in Detroit answered. I explained the situation. Active military. Veteran. Trying to make it to his beloved college coach’s last home game. She said she had room on the flight, leaving at 2 p.m. The agents might have closed the doors. I borrowed my roommate’s cell phone and dialed Rob.

Where are you? What terminal? Bravo, he responded. I had Kelly at United on my left ear and Rob on my right. Get to B20, Bravo20 now. Go. Run. You’re on the flight.

Kelly put me on hold and tried to call ahead to make sure the agents hadn’t closed the doors. Several tense minutes followed. Rob said he had a boarding pass. Kelly confirmed he’d made the flight. I was standing in my kitchen, hands in the air, smiling, surprised by the tears wetting my face.

Kickoff at 5 p.m. I monitored my phone as I watched the game from the sidelines. Rob landed at 5:33 p.m. and we began our play-by-play message exchange.

End of first quarter. Later Rob wrote: On 90.

I replied: Where on 90? We’re 10 minutes into the third quarter.

Rob: I’m trying. I might make the end.

Me: There’s a timeout for an injury. Bought some time.

Then: Start of the fourth quarter. Later: 10 minutes on the clock.

30 miles. Maybe I can catch him in the locker room.

Bypass downtown. It’s blocked for the Halloween parade.

8 miles.

Game over. He’s doing interviews.

Coach is in the room by the concession stand now.

I saw Rob’s face appear in the window. He opened the door and coach turned. As Rob would later remark, he could tell by Coach’s face that it took a minute for it to register.

Robbie T., Coach said. He clutched him in tight hug.

I had to be here, Coach.

Coach pulled away, held Rob at arm’s length, looked at his tear-stained face and then hugged him again in a long, long embrace. When they let go, both men wiped away tears.

Allegheny alumnus Staff Sgt. Robert Taylor hugs head football coach Mark Matlak after Matlak's last home game of his 14-year career at Allegheny College on Saturday night, Oct. 31, 2015. Taylor played three years for Matlak, including on the 2003 championship team. A veteran and active military, Taylor traveled from Fort Carson, Colorado to surprise his beloved coach. Copyright 2015 Cheryl Hatch ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Allegheny College alumnus Staff Sgt. Robert Taylor hugs head football coach Mark Matlak after Matlak’s last home game of his 14-year career at Allegheny on Saturday night, Oct. 31, 2015. Taylor played three years for Matlak, including on the 2003 championship team. A veteran and soldier, Taylor traveled from Fort Carson, Colorado to surprise his beloved coach. He wears a Killed in Action bracelet on his wrist for his buddy who died in Afghanistan and his 2003 championship ring on his finger.Copyright 2015 Cheryl Hatch ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

They went to the locker room and talked.

“This is the last place my dad was alive,” Rob said. “The same area. The same place.”

Rob found his name in his locker and took a few photos. They spent barely an hour together before Rob got in his rental car and drove to Pittsburgh. The next day he flew back to Colorado.

Rob said the last three seasons don’t reflect the kind of coach Matlak is.

“The last three seasons have been horrible for Allegheny,” Rob said. “I didn’t want him going out feeling negative. I wanted him to know he had an impact.”

He spent 15 hours traveling to reach the game. Nearly 11 more hours to get home. Twenty-six hours of travel for one hour with his college coach.

So he could shake Coach Matlak’s hand after his last home game.

“It was absolutely worth it,” Rob said. “He gave a lot to me and it felt good to go back and give back.”

Matlak remembered his 36 seasons as a football coach, including the last 14 with Allegheny.

“It was absolutely worth it,” he said to Rob. “You coming here, it reminds me of just how worth it it was.”

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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Keep playing your game no matter what anyone says

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From my weekly column Outside the Box, in The Meadville Tribune

Two Sundays ago, I watched the Allegheny women’s soccer team win the NCAC Division III championship at Robertson Field. I’d given my camera to a student who was covering the event and watched her dash down the field to photograph the hugging mob of players and spectators.

A few minutes later, I turned and noticed one player with her legs and arms wrapped around a man, hugging him tightly as he spoke in her ear. I lifted the only camera I had, my iPhone 4s, and recorded the moment—two frames.

I approached the young woman, wearing the No. 20 jersey, and asked her name. Brianna Layman. The man? Her father, Jeff Layman. Ever the curious journalist seeking—perhaps sensing—a story, I asked her about the moment I’d photographed.

“He was giving me a kiss and telling me how proud he was of me and how far I’d come,” Layman said.

How far you’d come?

In fifth grade, Layman explained, she had a coach when she was younger who told her soccer wasn’t her game.

“He just didn’t think I had any talent in soccer but soccer was what I wanted to do, so I kept playing.”

Before she left to see other family members and gather more hugs, I asked for her phone number. I might want to follow up with more questions.

I couldn’t get her story out of my head. As I pursued the story, I interviewed the team captain, Michelle Holcomb, a senior. She, too, had a coach who didn’t believe in her abilities on the pitch.

“You’re just not cut out to play competitive soccer,” Holcomb said, reciting her coach’s words. “Every one of us on this field has a story like that.”

I thought of my own parallel experiences with people in positions of authority or influence who had cast doubt or dumped buckets of cold-water negativity on my dreams and aspirations.

I imagine we’ve all encountered people who have offered us unsolicited, often uncharitable, advice. They seek to define us, shape us with their limiting words and narrow vision. They tell us what we can’t do. They tell us how we’re lacking in some way, missing the mark, falling short.

Too tall. Too short. Too young. Too old. Too soon. Too late.

Women don’t do that. Or worse, women can’t do that. Boys don’t do that. You don’t have the right training. You don’t come from the right family. You don’t have enough money. You’re not creative enough. You’re not smart enough.

When I was nearing college graduation, I was looking for an internship. I found a great opportunity: a Pulliam Fellowship. There were 10 positions each at two different papers, one in Phoenix, Ariz., one in Indianapolis, Ind. Paid summer fellowships with mentoring on a major metropolitan paper. I wanted one.

I showed my adviser the fellowship application. He told me I’d never get it. He told me I didn’t have the experience or the pedigree for such a lofty program. He told me that fellowship was for students who’d already had internships at USA Today, The New York Times or The Washington Post.

I applied. I earned one of the 10 spots at The Arizona Republic.

When I arrived, I learned I’d received the top, coveted spot on the state desk. I was naïve; I didn’t understand the implications. My fellow fellows wanted to know how someone like me—with no prior impressive internships—got the spot.

I asked my editor.

I had first choice, he said. I read your résumé. You speak multiple languages. You scuba dive. You fly planes. You’re an athlete. I knew I could send you anywhere and you’d come back with a story.

My editor didn’t look at what I didn’t have; he looked at what I did have. He read between the lines—and yes, thought outside the box. He saw my potential and gave me the opportunity and confidence to stretch as a young journalist, to grow, to channel my curiosity and chase stories wherever they led.

A good journalist is curious. A good journalist is persistent. A good journalist rarely takes no for an answer.

And champions, like Layman and Holcomb, refuse to let anyone tell them what they can and can’t do.

As a college athlete, I remember well our final day at the Pac-10 Rowing Championships. We were eight rowers lying on our backs in circle, heads facing in, the bare soles of our feet pointed out. With closed eyes, we listened as our coxswain described our race and we visualized every stroke—visualized crossing the finish line first.

The coach of the team we’d soon meet in the finals approached. He mentioned how nice it was for us to be at the competition then hinted that we were wasting our time since his team was favored to win.

Psychologically super uncool. Not to mention discourteous and unsportsmanlike. And intended to get under our skin and unhinge us.

It made me want to beat his team.

In crew, when a team wins a race, each member of the losing team literally gives the winner the shirt off her back.

I still have the shirt from the woman rowing three-seat on that favored-to-win crew team.

I wouldn’t have had half the fun or achieved much of what I’ve done in my life if I’d listened to others when they tried to define me, deny me, dissuade me.

It’s my life. I’ll live it. You live your life. And be blessed living it. It’s yours to define.

Take a cue from the fifth-grade Brianna Layman. Keep playing your game, no matter what anyone says.

And take inspiration from the college sophomore and NCAC champion Brianna Layman.

“Succeeding feels so much better when you prove people wrong.”

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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